Disaster-related stress: A primer for public safety personnel Public Safety

The immediate response to events such as disasters is stress. Stress is an elevation in a person's state of arousal or readiness, caused by some stimulus or demand. As stress arousal increases, health and performance actually improve. Within manageable levels, stress can help sharpen our attention and mobilize our bodies to cope with threatening situations. As the following graph illustrates, “optimal” stress involving functional amounts of arousal contributes to effective task performance, including response to disaster.
http://www.georgiadisaster.info/PublicSafety/publicsafetyfactsheets_clip_image002.jpgBut beyond that optimal level there is deterioration of health and performance begins to lessen, so it is important to manage stress in order to keep it in the “good” range.
Stress is mediated by appraisal which is the process of threat-assessment and response-formulation that your brain carries out when you are confronted with potentially harmful environmental challenges: “Have I had this experience before? If so, how did I respond? What was the outcome? Can I cope with the situation now?” If there's doubt as to any of these questions, the stress response elevates.
Here are some common stress reactions in response to disasters, experienced to varying degrees by everyone involved with them, and which you will experience as well.


Symptoms of stress that may be experienced during or after a traumatic incident

Physical*

Cognitive

Emotional**

Behavioral

Chest pain*
Difficulty breathing*
Shock symptoms*
Fatigue
Nausea/vomiting
Dizziness
Profuse sweating
Rapid heart rate
Thirst
Headaches
Visual difficulties
Clenching of jaw
Nonspecific aches and pains

Confusion
Nightmares
Disorientation
Heightened or lowered alertness
Poor concentration
Memory problems
Poor problem solving
Difficulty identifying familiar objects or people

Anxiety
Guilt
Grief
Denial
Severe panic (rare)
Fear
Irritability
Loss of emotional control
Depression
Sense of failure
Feeling overwhelmed
Blaming others or self

Intense anger
Withdrawal
Emotional outburst
Temporary loss or increase of appetite
Excessive alcohol consumption
Inability to rest, pacing
Change in sexual functioning

*Seek medical attention immediately if you experience chest pain, difficulty breathing, severe pain, or symptoms of shock (shallow breathing, rapid or weak pulse, nausea, shivering, pale and moist skin, mental confusion, and dilated pupils).

**Seek mental health support if your symptoms or distress continue for several weeks or interfere with your daily activities.

Although the effects of PTSD are serious and difficult to deal with, it can be treated by a variety of forms of psychotherapy and medication.

Web Links

The homepage of the National Center for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder offers an abundance of educative resources that address some of the mental health concerns faced by public safety personnel.

Here is a brief article from the CDC for Stress Management for Emergency Responders What Team Leaders Can Do

Here are some specific techniques for individual stress management

This gives some of FEMA’s reccomendations for coping with disaster stress